The Debater

The Conservative Soul
By Andrew Sullivan
Harper Collins, New York
$25.95, 304 pages
Several months ago comedian Bill Maher, whose show Real Time is about enough to justify HBO's guilt-inducing price tag, hosted one of his typically implausible panels. The cast included Salman Rushdie, Ben Affleck, and the writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan. While Rushdie was soft-spoken and Affleck proved smarter than South Park would have you believe, it was the token conservative that unsuspecting viewers might've gotten confused for the Angry Liberal. So inflamed was he about the current administration's positions on torture, Iraq, and gay marriage, he preempted any sort of left-right shout downs.

Sullivan was one of a small core of early bloggers who posted (and posted!) before blogs became a constituency unto themselves. Sullivan is a gay, Catholic conservative, not to mention a British ex-pat, so he's got plenty of material to mine. Adding to this bag is his two-year transition from a Bush supporter, especially on Iraq, to one of his angriest critics.

Sullivan used to write for The New York Times Magazine; he also edited The New Republic, where he still contributes. The man is nothing if not prolific. Scratch that. The man is nothing if not prolific and a very skilled polemicist. His new book bears that out more than readers of his blog, The Daily Dish, might imagine. That's because The Conservative Soul isn't the sort of book a "blogger" is supposed to write. For one thing, it's not about blogging and how bloggers are Changing The Media/Democratic Party/the World. Rather, this is a personal book of political philosophy. It's grounded in previous thinkers, contextualized to the present moment. It's feisty and at times fun and remarkably readable.

Much of the book is spent making the case for what Sullivan calls as a "conservatism of doubt." This declining political strain is uncomfortable with ideological certainty that pops up everywhere from the pulpits of mega-churches and mosques to the editorial board of The Weekly Standard. Any movement that boasts its ideas will surely change the world should be suspect, our author notes, and illustrates at length in a variety of different contexts.

Conservatives still loyal to the Bush administration and its "with us or against us" mores, will have a tough time with Sullivan's political resume. He supported Clinton in '92, Bush in 2000, and Kerry in '04. A flip-flopper? Not as he sees it; more of a freethinker and surely a walking testament to the rightward tilt at our political center, at least as far as the economy and foreign policy goes.

Liberals on the other hand will surely bristle at Sullivan's occasionally smug support for globalization and anti-unionism of the Thatcher-Reagan school. But ... this very same camp will have a blast with his dissection of social-conservative teaching on sexuality. Because, really, who better than a gay Catholic steeped in conservative political and Christian theology to dismantle its own dogma? Specifically, Sullivan devotes many delightful pages puncturing - nay, body-slamming - Catholic "natural law" philosophy, which seeks to find in the natural world proof positive that human nature is indeed synonymous with conservative edicts on sexuality, i.e.: "The very existence of the clitoris is therefore a living rebuke to those who argue that nature itself - the way our bodies have been constructed - dictates a certain and necessarily procreative sexual morality."

On fundamentalist art he's equally delightful. A brief takedown of Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ illustrates as efficiently as any blog or film review how fundie art serves one exclusive, anti-intellectual goal:

" ... All the richness and subtlety and grace of centuries of Christian art is literally hammered into an inarguable, uncontestable demand that the viewer be emotionally brutalized into the sublime self-surrender of the fundamentalist faith."

Because he's so clearly capable of much nuanced analysis, when Sullivan delves into disingenuous or intellectually lazy assertions, it's painfully obvious. For example, one need not be a fan of academic leftists to dispute Sullivan's contention that this entire professional class believes the only moral absolute is a woman's right to abort a fetus.

Fortunately, these kind of barbs are few and far between. There's a lot more by way of philosophical inquiry, drawing lines from Plato and Aristotle to contemporary British conservatives like Michael Oakenshott.

In light of recent political events, it's clear that while America isn't necessarily embracing Sullivan's "conservatism of doubt," it is rejecting one of "certainty" - the certainty of a "decider" whose rhetoric does not keep pace with the competence of his administration in making things on the ground, be it hurricane relief or Humvee armor in Iraq, actually work.

Political campaigns can't be constructed on the premise of doubt, but surely many conservatives might wish, if only in private, that their Great Decider had spent more time doubting and less swaggering.